Forefoot Running Downhill: Doing it Safely

To prevent high impact forces and shock transmission when forefoot running downhill, avoid leaning back, but rather maintain the position of the center of mass (COM) above or close to foot strike position.

 

Although, an anterior position of the COM will cause you to speed up abruptly when forefoot running downhill,  it reduces braking, muscular damage, and injury.

Forefoot running downhill: How to do it safelyForefoot running downhill is harder on the body compared to forefoot running uphill because it disturbs pace strategy and biomechanics.

Never Slow Down When Forefoot Running Downhill

Many forefoot runners pull back on their reins and lean back to avoid speeding up when running downhill.

  • leaning back when running shifts the COM back as well and therefore the COM is behind foot strike position, resulting in braking and greater shock accelerations.
  • braking during forefoot running downhill increases shock propagation from the tibial tuberosity level which hinders the ability of the muscles to dissipate shock.

The muscles are great shock attenuators, but the shock attenuating ability of the muscles is threshold dependent meaning that once shock exceeds the threshold, the risk of tibial stress fractures increase.

This is why running downhill feels ‘hard’ on the body because braking, and thus preventing the body from surging when forefoot running downhill, increases the vertical impact peak force and shock transmission. What are the consequences of this?

  • braking-induced shock loads when running downhill increases loading on the bones and raises the risk of stress fracture development.

Many forefoot runners instantly mimic heel strike running mechanical characteristics (i.e. over-striding, running too upright) when running downhill and the only way to prevent this is by not ‘fighting’ with the hill, but rather let yourself give into the hill.

  • resisting the urge to speed up during downhill running dramatically increases mechanical stress and muscular damage due to greater eccentric muscular contractions.

The worst thing you can do is pull back on yourself when forefoot running downhill. You are better off surging and not braking. That way, you minimize shock accelerations and prevent muscle damage.

Speeding up Better than Slowing Down When Running Downhill

If you ever watch elite distance runners who are forefoot strikers run, you will notice that the position of their torso does not change when running downhill. If anything, their pace drops and they glide down the hill. That is because they are keeping their COM over or very close to their foot strike position.

Forefoot Running Downhill
Notice how the COM (torso) shifts forward in the runners above. Although, these runners are not leaning forward, they are not leaning back either and instead, they maintain a controlled fall when running downhill.

Don’t Hold Back, Let Yourself go when Running Downhill

When forefoot running downhill, do not change the position of COM and allow it to stay above or as close as possible to foot strike position. Yes, you will end up flying down the hill, but despite rapidly speeding up, shock loading on the muscles is lower than if you were to shift your COM back.

There is really no other way around it, but to just let the hill make you run faster until you get to the bottom where here, you gradually sink back into your goal pace.

 

More From Run Forefoot:

Why You Shouldn’t be Heel Striking:

 


References:

Iversen JR and Macmahon TA. Running on an incline. J Biomech Eng, 1992;114:435–41.

Mizrahi J, Verbitsky O and Isakov, E. Shock accelerations and attenuation in downhill and level running. Clin Biomech, 2000; 15 15–20

Milgrom C. The Israeli elite infantry recruit: a model for understanding the biomechanics of stress fractures. J R Coll Surg Edinb, 1989; 34 Suppl 6:S18–S21.

Nurenberg CJ, Stray-Gundersen J, Fleckenstein JL, Gonyea WJ, Peshock RM. MR Imaging-guided muscle biopsy for correlation of increased signal intensity with ultrastructural change and delayed-onset muscle soreness after exercise. Radiology,
1992; 184:865–9.

Bretta Riches

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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